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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sushil Malhotra

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-01-10

It wasn't his birthday yesterday nor that of his wife and his three children. But Sushil Malhotra celebrated anyway.

It was 40 years ago that Mr. Malhotra came to America as a 17-year-old from India to study engineering at City College. He stayed on to obtain an MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business.

Today, he's regarded by many as the "father" of Indian cuisine in America.

Mr. Malhotra ratcheted up ethnic dining from the curry-in-a-hurry variety associated with dingy restaurants. His accomplishment was to produce what's-the-hurry? fare elegantly offered by turbaned attendants in establishments where it often seems that visas - not merely connections - are needed for entry.

"I saw a niche for upscale dining," the president and co-founder of the Cafe Spice group, said. "I was there at just the right time."

But wasn't it a major leap from the world of engineering to that of haute cuisine?

"Ah," Mr. Malhotra said, "so it would seem. But I applied the organizational skills I learned as an engineer, and then at business school, to the restaurant business."

Actually, he learned both sets of skills even earlier through osmosis. His parents, Mulk Raj and Krishna Malhotra, came to Bombay from their native Karachi when India was carved up by the British into secular India and Islamic Pakistan in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of refugees like the Malhotras were forced to start life all over again.

In the event, the older Mr. Malhotra did quite well for himself as an electrical entrepreneur. He encouraged the young Sushil to join him at the family factory after school.

"I must have been 14 when I started working with my father - he taught me two things that are even more useful now, dealing with people, and dealing with day to day problems," Mr. Malhotra said. "I learned how to manage a business, how to be diplomatic, how to balance the books. College in America was a breeze after that."

Although he'd been in the engineering field, Mr. Malhotra began to sense that curry was in the air. More and more Indian students were coming to America for higher education, changing the tradition of going to British universities. When Mr. Malhotra arrived in 1966, there were just a few hundred Indians at American educational institutions; now there are some 100,000, or almost 20% of all foreign students in this country.

These students yearned for their native cuisine. So did the Indian physicians, and the professionals who'd started coming here to work on Wall Street. Mr. Malhotra began selling spices and condiments at a shop on Lexington Avenue. It was only a matter of time before he would unveil his own restaurants.

One of those restaurants, Dawat, became an instant hit - not only on account of good reviews but also its proximity to Bloomingdale's.

"In real estate they say, 'Location, location, location,'" Mr. Malhotra said. "Well, you can say the same thing in the restaurant business."

With his curried success under the belt, so to speak, Mr. Malhotra decided to tone up the quality of fast food offered to New Yorkers. He launched the Cafe Spice series of eateries in the city, expanding it to Philadelphia; the restaurants bring in revenues of more than $5 million annually.

Now he's taking on the British.

"But not in Britain - in America," Mr. Malhotra said, noting that he's manufacturing condiments and savories that British merchants voluminously exported to America.

Those productions are put together at a commissary in Long Island City. The commissary does catering as well.

"If you want really good Indian food, you can now get it here in America," Mr. Malhotra said. "You will never have to go home again."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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